Barbara Gordon: A Life Lived in Song

This is a memorial essay for Barbara Gordon, written by my friend Yvonne Raley, formerly Associate Professor of Philosophy at Felician University.

The sound of your voice will always be with me, Barbara, my beloved and loyal friend, my teacher of song. I am so grateful to have been graced with your presence for 27 years of my life, and so torn apart by your untimely death.

I knew you as delicate and fragile in many ways, and yet you were mighty, a true force that would fill people’s hearts with music and joy. I will never forget how you grilled me before taking me on as your student, to make sure I had enough dedication, because you would accept nothing less. I finally won you over with our shared love for Debussy and my ability to speak French, and so in 1994 I became your tutee Friday mornings at NYU, and a couple of years later at your home where I became part of your extended family: I stood next to the piano and practiced as Josh graduated high school and Ellie graduated college, got married and had kids of her own. I met Josh’s cat Milo who loved your yard, and I shared a memorable Seder with you. Not only did you introduce me to Satie and Ravel, but also to your Chiropractor and to Whole Foods!

I really did think of you as a musical genius. I know, lofty words to compliment a retired Felician University faculty member that left us with few to no recordings of her gifts. But Felician’s inability to recognize the gifts it had been bestowed upon by its dedicated and talented faculty was always shockingly overt. So was its inability to publicly acknowledge your service, but that’s ok, because we, I and everyone, else whose life you have touched acknowledges you!

I was your student for a long time before I came to fully appreciate the extent of your abilities. I knew from the start that you were multi talented – because no regular voice teacher “just” plays the left hand of song by Debussy she is seeing for the first time because she wants to accompany you but also correct you while you sing. (For the un-initiated: most voice teachers are not simultaneously accompanists, these are normally two skills not possessed by the same person.)

Your flawless and beautiful French impressed me right away too, as did your ability to read and pronounce songs in German, Italian, and Spanish.

And over time, I learned how caring and dedicated a teacher you would be, which is why I introduced you to Felician University to teach choir. But I had no idea how quickly you would be able to build a choir, and that you would then “just” go on to build an entire music department. Though it was almost unsurprising that our then president, Sr. Theresa, stood up when the choir gave its first concert in December 2006, went up to the stage, introduced herself as the President and said how thrilled she was, as a former music director, that there “was music at Felician.” She expressed what we all felt: that somehow, a miracle had just been pulled off.

I also didn’t know how emphatically and precisely you conducted until I joined your choir, or how many hours you must have put into playing the piano until I got to listen to you devote your entire attention to a complicated piece. I had no idea how extensively you researched the history and interpretation of the music you taught about, and how easily you recognized interesting transpositions of songs for different instruments and voices. Your love for your students was great, and your standards were high!

What stood out the most to me, however is this. First and foremost, it was your voice. How you just hugged the highest notes like the petals of a flower, soft, tiny, and so on cue. The lyrical velvety sound, the seemingly innate sense of changes in tempo and tune. Your feel for what the composer wanted to say and your ability to actually express it with your song. Secondly, it was your ability to demonstrate those very same traits when accompanying a singer. Your natural astuteness of anticipation, of reading off of the singer’s voice and abilities what tempo to take, when to play softly and when to push the singer along, or even when to remind your student of what comes next in the song, by gently speeding up or just accentuating a single note in a chord with a finger. I had very few accompanists in my life since I had no interest in being on the stage, but none of those I did have came close. Being a gifted singer is rare, as is being a gifted piano player. So you were doubly rare.

It’s a very fruitful wedding of traits too: being able to force and direct the music with conducting and accompanying, yet at the same time absorbing the interpretation and mood of the singing body, whether it be one person like me or an entire choir. Even the rather uneven Felician choir was able to pull off some really good stuff thanks to your giftedness.

So while a small part of me is sad that you didn’t become “one of the greats of our time” to be appreciated by the many, I am grateful and happy that because of this, you got to be part “mine.” I got to learn from one of the greats who dedicated herself to those she loved instead: to Warren who I know was the love of her life, to Josh and Ellie her kids, her family, and to her students like me.

I will miss you always.

Yvonne Raley was, until June 2014, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Felician University. She is currently an independent scholar and jewelry designer based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

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